This album is a complete delight from start to finish. It is a first class
representation of the works of Danny Elfman specialist in the Gothic, the
comic and the grotesque (often the grotesquely comic) - and the anarchic.
The album opens exuberantly with a seven minute suite from Pee-Wee's Big
Adventure. Elfman, himself, says in his very pithy notes "...fans will
undoubtedly hear my tributes to Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann, the two composers
who were responsible for igniting my interest in film music way back when
I was a kid..." This high-spirited, bouncy music, redolent of the fairground
and the circus with clowns, trapeze artists and a demented carousel, could
so easily have accompanied a Fellini film.
Then we move from the light to relative darkness - and to the Gothic. The
senses are assaulted by the emergence, out of cavernous depths, of the thrilling
Batman theme. It seems to suggest a controlled madness if you like, Batman's
obsessive, ruthless war on lawlessness besides the heroic. There are two
movements in this continuous eight minute suite; after the statement of the
theme "Up the Cathedral" with mounting excitement generated by ascending,
driving strings, organ swells, crashing cymbals and staccato brass figures.
Voices, intoning some satanic-like paean, join the orchestra as the chase
continues in "Descent into Mystery".
For Dick Tracy, Elfman manages, appropriately, to inject a rather
cartoon-like character into his score which mixes mystery with romance. (You
feel that he has his tongue well and truly in his cheek with this one.) There
is a very marked nod in the direction of Gershwin with tremblingly respectful
timpani rolls. Droll, droll...
"Daylight come and we want to go home..." intones the husky voice at the
start of this outrageous ghost-ridden, fun-filled romp, that is the music
for Beetlejuice It is quirky and irreverent, and it's a real musical
roller coaster; it grabs you by the scruff of the neck and pushes you through
all manner of bangs, whoops, screeches and slithers; there's even a mad broken
tango in there. A perfect accompaniment to all the on-screen insanity. Great
Nightbreed takes us back into the shadows. As Elfman says, "... it combines
the dark, funny, scary, sweet and tribal all in one ...using children's voices
and a whole slew of ethnic drums and instruments together with an orchestra
in an attempt to bring a unique musical tone to the film." He succeeds for
this music really resonates for this listener. There is a parallel sense
of compassion along with the feeling of ghoulish menace (very palpable in
a Voodoo type of dance) adding an extra dimension to this very impressive
score which again demonstrates how imaginatively Elfman integrates voices
into his orchestral fabric.
Darkman is another troubled and turbulent Gothic score. It is powerfully
driven music once more and again there is that overpowering sense of lurking
evil, of the beast barely caged. The organ has a major role, as in Batman;
and there is a slow march for brass over ascending tremolando strings before
harp arpeggios usher in calmer, more romantic material.
Back to School is short and sweet. It's rather silly really, the clowns
are out again and running berserck.
Midnight Run's music contrasts the slow and limpid with the fast and
exhilarating. It begins with a set of snidish-sounding electronic guitars
that seem to be menaced by a rattle-snake. This is a biggish jazz band-based
score with the aforementioned guitars massed across the sound stage in front
of the brass and saxes. The latter half of the track is a piano and harmonium
led blues piece. Another facet of Elfman's wide-ranging talents.
There is a primitive feel of the jungle about Wisdom. Voices and a
wide variety of exotic percussive effects with some electronic punctuations
all add up to another hypnotically- rhythmed, ear-arresting score. There
is a feeling that everything including the kitchen sink is being used here!
Hot to Trot. As Danny says, "I never pass up a chance to write for
accordions." - even though they have to fight against the electronics and
percussion. Another fun item. It's amazing how Elfman can almost make his
instruments talk. Just listen to the part for the harmonica.
Big Top Pee Wee see track one - another wild and wacky excursion to
the circus - this time its the saxophone, tuba and accordion that have most
of the fun. There's a rather nice touch of pathos too - the clown in tears?
The Simpsons - a brief explosion of anarchy. Raspberries all round!
The music for Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Jar, funnily enough had
me visualising hammers hitting a line of jars filled with varying amounts
of liquid to provide some intriguing modulations if not a distinctive tune.
The score is appropriately sinister but comic too. Are there dastardly deeds
afoot - can I hear that skeleton in the cupboard and sort of Tom and Jerry
tiptoeing up the stairs? Music to ignite the imagination.
So too are the dreaded thumps which open Tales from the Crypt. It's
the Elfman mix of terror and buffoonery again. With the double bassoon as
the main villain.
Face like a Frog is - well, totally, grotesquely funny. Its just
completely, hilariously - wild!
Forbidden Zone is for two pianos. The Dies Irae shadows its
rather sad, enigmatic little journey.
Scrooged is a substantial nine-minute track. It starts with children's
voices chanting over sleigh bells; all pursued by sinister figures of the
Batman variety. Then there is a colourful, atmospheric mixture of boozy saxes,
chiming figures, and sinister flutterings and sighings. This Christmas Carol
chills as much as it charms and the ending is unusually bleak.
An absorbing album and strongly recommended
And Paul Tonks says:-
The release of this album in 1990 acknowledged how rapidly the composer had
become a cult item. A hideous term for his fans ("Elfies") sprang up, which
probably best describes those who rushed to by the disc on release (ahem).
There are 17 suites and themes pasted together in this first volume. They
do not run chronologically, so it must be presumed some thought went into
the sequencing of cues - it eludes me however ! Opening appropriately on
Elfman's first studio picture, Pee Wee's Big Adventure is a lesson
in meeting expectation. He was hired by director Tim Burton on the strength
of what he'd heard from the rock band Oingo Boingo. Not formally trained
in musical composition, this chance of a lifetime was also understandably
daunting. He therefore did what most of us might well have done in such
circumstances - adapt what we know. Throughout this suite made up of 4 album
cues, you are invited to doff your cap to Georges Delerue, Nino Rota, and
Bernard Herrmann. I won't spoil the fun that's to be had by discovering the
specific films themselves, but where Rota's concerned a look into Federico
Fellini's greats is quite revealing...
Paul Reuben's Pee Wee is a crossbreed of Jerry Lewis with a mime clown. With
plenty of surreal carnivalesque imagery in Burton's film, Elfman created
a very refreshing comedic sound which obviously caught studio's ears. An
immediate glut of comedy scores appeared; obviously influenced by it. There
are some remarkably well orchestrated parts in cues such as "Breakfast Machine".
What they demonstrate as is so often the case in his career is just how adept
with percussion he is. Rhythm was the fundamental key to the success of his
first score. It goes beyond mere 'Mickey Mousing', and as an example there
is a scene in the film where Pee Wee storms up to a house and there is a
visual gag of him repeatedly knocking on the door. Elfman makes the whole
thing incredibly funny by anticipating timing of the knocks in the incidental
build-up. Without that feel for a good beat, things might have been rather
Aside from the fun of the fair, the film also managed to allow Burton to
exercise his darker sides in some smaller scenes. The Herrmann influence
was therefore allowed licence in the music. The cue "Stolen Bike" (not here)
is the best example, but even in this opening lively suite there is the familiar
use of harp and brass to give enough of a taster for all that was to come...
By skipping to their third cinematic partnership together, the album proves
just how much Herrmann means to Elfman. Batman was the biggest thing
about the end of the '80s. It captured everything about the need to flash
the size of your wallet in the 'Loadsamoney' era. As far as the film's score
is concerned, we need only be thankful that no-one scrimped on the budget.
It could all very nearly have been a wash of songs from the likes of Prince
and Michael Jackson, but in the end the director's voice outweighed the
producer's. Somehow the album's version of the score (and these are nearly
all taken from the already available releases), sounds smaller than it does
to film. The Sinfonia of London still makes a hell of a racket though, and
the classic "Batman Theme" is even more memorable when you know the composer
put it together stood in the toilet of a plane taking from England to the
There is more than just a dash of the opera about the music, yet a choir
is only used the once for the cue "Descent Into Mystery" for a showing off
scene of the Batmobile hurtling through a forest at great speed. It is with
no small amount of shame that I confess to knowing there are a total of 18
cymbal crashes in this cue, making it the most dramatic part of the suite.
It is sadly a weak link in the represented scores, since there are far better
tracks that could have been used here. Also, it is receives the largest number
of edits of all the collection's pieces. In total they would not have exceeded
the disc's running time, and this can therefore only have been an artistic
(vanity) choice. [Pee Wee suffered the loss of the second half of
its first cue too - the better half unfortunately]
Still in comic book territory comes Dick Tracy. The fact that this
is the original unused main title is acknowledged, but that isn't a selling
point since the version of the love theme was replaced by a terrific upbeat
hero theme - which we don't get. Relishing the slushy larger-than-life
opportunity, he certainly delivers a fine lover's tune for strings but the
preceding brassy subdued fanfare is far more creative. In fact there were
again many better cues that could have represented the score better.
The backtrack to Beetle Juice (or Beetlejuice as it seems to
be formatted everywhere but actually in the film !), is part of the reason
I question the sequencing. It's a light-heartedness that interrupts the more
serious mood before and after. That's not to knock the music itself, which
is a sprightly jig for the "Main Titles" with innovative samples beefing
up the smaller orchestra and mixed choir. It bounces very merrily into a
segue with the slightly more serious "End Titles", and confirms by this point
that the collection is largely concerned with dishing out the big themes.
Something that the film has always had to its credit is the inspired use
of songs by Harry Belafonte. Burton's idea of a certain type of 'holiday
music' pointed very specifically on the musical map for Elfman, and there
is a whole sense of breezy nothin' doin' alongside the spookiness.
Real horror comes with Clive Barker's Nightbreed - what a mess. After
some easily identifiable Herrmannesque flourishes in the subterranean depths
of the "Main Titles", this suite presents parts of what is still Elfman's
loudest score to date. The exaggerated 'whoops' of the choir are in direct
contrast to the later sound of Edward Scissorhands. Here, it's every
shock chord for itself and is probably about as half and half a listening
experience as soundtracks get. The melody with atonality is mixed thick and
fast, and takes an acquired ear to appreciate.
Blending everything that has come so far is Darkman - another example
of Elfman working with his idol directors (Sam Raimi here). Interestingly,
you can hear the "Main Titles" theme for this gothic misadventure previewed
in the "Clown Dream" segment of the Pee Wee's Big Adventure suite.
There it's just a muted horn. For the whole tragedian aspect of Liam Neeson's
Phantom of the Opera wannabe, the theme is played larghetto with just
a hint of the circus in the background once again. The most abundant use
of his dadadadadada horns features here, long before their predictable inclusion
became overtaken by his current favourite samples.
Here the album effectively enters a second catalogue of material. With all
the big school of blockbuster scoring dealt with, the lesser known quirky
oddities get some attention. Starting with Back To School, the first
style exhibited is a neo-classical piano running amok. Midnight Run
is one of the most entertaining albums in its own right, but even this one
small snatch of Rhythm 'n' Blues is satisfying enough. Wisdom is an
all electronic score, and was all performed by Elfman himself too. The one
man show had a great theme in its "Main Titles", but sadly we only get two
lesser cues. There's a first in the availability of the funkiness of Hot
To Trot. Its accordion sample and guitars perfectly complement Midnight
Run (so it's a shame they weren't sequenced as neighbours). Then after
all the suppressed desires to work for the circus, his wish came true with
Big Top Pee Wee. What a shame it could not have been a more worthy
sequel. Unable to re-use any of the material from the first (different studios),
he still got to have some fun, and the "Love Theme" is an unexpected treat
in an old fashioned grandiose way.
Turning to TV, we have the omnipresent Simpsons theme (the international
annual residuals of which must be able to support a sizeable family). The
Jar was his second collaboration with director Burton, and a long forgotten
one at that. It did offer Elfman his first opportunity to directly follow
Bernard Herrmann (he has just arranged for the new Psycho of course),
and it shows. It's quite a lightweight piece, but the underlying sinisterness
is all the better for it. The organ and harpsichord combination for Tales
From the Crypt almost seems like a genre cliché, yet somehow it
comes alive (or undead) with the catchy theme.
We get into real fannish territory for the penultimate couplet. Face Like
A Frog is a short animated tale scored for a friend. It doesn't really
progress as any sort of thematic development, more a cobbling together of
experimentations with a keyboard (side note: see comments for review of Pee
Wee's Playhouse in Volume Two). That's also largely true of Elfman's
real first movie Forbidden Zone directed by brother Richard. The former
Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo were called upon to play to and
in the movie, but Elfman managed to find time to put in more, and the first
of many beautiful "Love Themes".
The most collectable part of the album is tagged last in the unreleased
Scrooged. After recognising the opening as reminiscent of Toto's
Dune, the remaining 8 minutes don't actually leave that much more
of an impression. The harpsichord has already made an appearance, as have
the wordless choir. Looking back from its position it indicates just how
little there was to sell the album on at the time other than the composer's
popularity, and sadly we had to wait 6 years for a much worthier